Nordic diet a healthy one
The Nordic countries place high priority on healthy food in promoting public health. Many Nordic researchers are currently studying nutritional issues, and the new dietary recommendations are based on thousands of research articles.
Much research has focused on the traditional Nordic diet of foods such as whole-grain cereals, fish, onions, root vegetables, fruits and berries.
The experts conclude, in short, that there is little that needs changing in what is traditionally considered a good Nordic diet. The proposal for recommendations on food and drink remain largely the same – since we now know that a Nordic diet can be equally healthful as a Mediterranean diet.
Much new knowledge
Over the past five years, several new food research groups have been established in the Nordic region. NordForsk has provided funding for three Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoEs) in the area of food, health and nutritional research. These centres are now reaching the end of their funding periods.
Professor Wulf Becker of the Swedish National Food Agency in Uppsala has headed the extensive collaborative effort behind the new Nordic nutritional recommendations.
“We have long believed that the Nordic diet is a healthy one,” he says, “but we did not have enough scientific evidence to really prove it. Now there is enough evidence-based research to make the claim that a traditional Nordic diet is every bit as good for public health as a Mediterranean one.”
“The three NCoEs funded by NordForsk have yielded a great deal of new knowledge. At the same time,” explains Professor Becker, “we have succeeded in developing research groups that have raised the level of food expertise in the Nordic region. Many of the researchers who have been active at these centres were also involved in drawing up the recommendations.”
Nordic food is trendy
Professor Becker believes Nordic research on food has helped to pave the way for increased Nordic participation in the culinary world, resulting in positive links between food research and the Nordic gastronomy sector.
“We see that Nordic food has become trendy in the Nordic countries as well as internationally.”
The concept of “Nordic food” has entered public consciousness, and on closer inspection it is very comparable to the traditional diet of the Mediterranean countries.
“They are quite similar,” confirms Professor Becker. “People traditionally ate much more whole-grain foods in the Mediterranean region, as well as a diet rich in fish and without much meat – just like here in the Nordic countries.”
Why are Nordic recommendations needed?
Nordic collaboration on nutritional research began back in the 1960s, and Nordic dietary recommendations have been issued since the 1980s. But why are specifically Nordic recommendations necessary when national, European, and World Health Organization recommendations are available?
“The Nordic countries are very similar in both dietary habits and diet-related diseases, so it is natural to stake out a common platform.”
“Furthermore,” continues Professor Becker, “it is a huge task for each Nordic country to come up with national dietary recommendations; much more documentation is now required. Each Nordic country has limited resources and a limited number of nutritional experts as well. The effort to design Nordic recommendations has involved some 100 Nordic experts in the field. So Nordic-level collaboration provides a much stronger basis for issuing recommendations.”
Nutritional researchers have always faced challenges with objective methods of measurement. Much research has made use of questionnaires – but all too often consumers’ answers are simply not reliable. Many people likely respond the way they believe they “should”, which can lead to an incorrect picture of the public’s diet.
Now researchers have more dependable methods, with the advent of newly developed biomarkers that greatly simplify the collection of quantifiable data. Biomarkers are substances in tissue, blood or urine which, when analysed together, indicate what a person has ingested and determine the body’s levels of various nutrients.
Nordic Health - Whole Grain Food (HELGA), one of the NCoEs funded by NordForsk, has developed a biomarker that allows researchers to measure how much whole-grain food a person has consumed. Wulf Becker believes this is highly significant for nutritional research.
Vitamin D and selenium
There was not much new in the fifth set of recommendations presented at the Iceland conference in relation to previous Nordic recommendations.
The most important recommended change is a higher daily intake of vitamin D and selenium in the Nordic countries. The working group appointed to revise the 2004 recommendations also believes that an increase in iodine intake for pregnant women and nursing mothers should be considered.
The important components of a healthy diet for the Nordic countries remain:
- Plenty of fibre-rich foods from the plant kingdom, e.g. dark-green leafy vegetables, cabbage and onions, beans, peas and root vegetables
- Fruits and berries
- Whole-grain cereals
- Fish and other seafood
- Vegetable oils
- Low-fat dairy products
Positive Nordic trend?
The roughly 400 conference participants received some good news from both the host country Iceland and from Sweden: the epidemic of overweight children and young people finally appears to be levelling off.
Perhaps this is the result of more people following the recommendations for a healthy diet.
New figures from both Sweden and Iceland indicate that the number of children and young people struggling with overweight is no longer increasing. The researchers behind the data from Sweden presented an additional development: children of parents with a low level of education are increasingly prone to overweight, while children whose parents are highly educated are not.
“This indicates that social differences could be increasing,” comments Professor Becker.
“We must not sit back and consider the problem solved. The percentage of overweight children and young people in the Nordic region still remains relatively high.”
Text: Siw Ellen Jakobsen